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From the January-February 2008 issue of Union Democracy Review #171
Four state nurses associations quit AFL-CIO union
In December, nurses associations in four states, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington, withdrew from the United American Nurses, the national AFL-CIO union of registered nurses.
In November, the four associations dispatched a joint ultimatum to the UAN executive council demanding that it discharge its executive director, sever relations with Cohen, Weiss, and Simon, its law firm, and cease all discussions aimed at cooperating with the Service Employees International Union. One theme seemed to run through the assortment of complaints listed in the letter: a concern that the UAN was taking on an independent life of its own as a union. It accused the UAN of "duplicative resource-wasting programs." It emphasized that "our members identify most closely with their state associations... It is the state association that is the certified bargaining agent, not the UAN..." The letter demanded "fundamental change." On December 6, at what was abortively scheduled as a "unity" meeting with the UAN, representatives of the four walked, announcing that they "plan to urge our members and elected leadership to disaffiliate from the UAN..." Two weeks later, the split became final.
However, the reference to the "members and elected leadership" who presumably voted to disaffiliate is more complicated than it sounds and is confusing, because the relationship between the nurses associations and the nurses unions is complex and confusing. The nurses associations are not unions but are professional associations which include management and others who are not employed as working staff nurses. Each association has set up a union subdivision to engage in collective bargaining. The union division is subordinate to the non-union association board of directors. In New York, for example, the decision to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO union was not made by the New York union membership or by its union leadership but by the non-union board of directors of the non-union New York State Nurses Association. Actually, according to one leader of the union sector, six of the thirteen members of the association's board, which presumably voted to disaffiliate, are not even union members. A few weeks earlier, in a membership poll, New York nurses had voted down a proposal to disaffiliate from the United American Nurses, AFL-CIO. The Delegates Assembly, which is the representative body of the union nurses in the New York Association, never had the opportunity for a full discussion or a formal vote on the disputed issue. In short, the decision to withdraw from the AFL-CIO union was put through by the non-union board of the New York association. (Our call to the NYSNA for comment was not returned.)
In a letter to the United American Nurses, the Michigan Nurses Association disassociated itself from the seceders' early ultimatum. It wrote,
Nurses in New York can testify to the fear of intimidation. When the NYS Nurses Association's proposal to disaffiliate from the United American Nurses went down to defeat 2,312 to 1,533, with fewer than 4,000 of its 34,000 members bothering to vote, its board dismissed the result on the ground that opponents of disaffiliation had deceived the voters on their website. Disciplinary charges were filed against twenty-three New York nurses who had campaigned successfully on their own website to remain affiliated to the UAN-AFL-CIO. After an interlude of seven weeks, nerve-wracking for the potential victims, an impartial committee ruled that the actions of the defendants were "protected under 'freedom of speech' provisions of applicable federal labor law." Nevertheless in dismissing the charges, the NYSNA Board of Directors warned the defendants that it "was outraged by the way in which the mailings and website did not disclose that they were funded by the UAN... the Board of Directors is taking steps to further protect the Association... Any further unauthorized use of the acronym or logo will result in any and all legal or other action available to protect the Association." In substance: you got away with it this time, but watch out!
Statements of support for the UAN, like the letter from Michigan, came from leaders of nurses associations in Minnesota, Alaska, Hawaii, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Iowa and from Pat Kane who is vice president of the New York Association's Delegates Assembly, its collective bargaining arm. Kane is one of the 23 who had faced charges; she is one of the leaders of Nurses for Unity, the independent caucus within the New York Association, which continues to oppose disaffiliation.
Nurses associations are hybrid institutions, separately organized by state and loosely affiliated to a national body, the American Nurses Association [ANA.] Members are all licensed as registered nurses, but not all actually work as staff nurses. Some are in research, in education, in public relations, and some are in management. In New York, for example, 32,000 of the 34,000 members are hospital staff nurses under collective bargaining contract; the other 2,000 are miscellaneous members, including administrators. So that while they all have certain common interests as registered nurses; some also have divergent interests: employees vs. management. Like similar groups, (e.g. Civil Service Employees Association in New York State) they were originally created as professional associations which spurned collective bargaining and remained independent of the labor movement. However, as the idea of unionism became popular among professionals, the nurses associations, like the others, began to take on collective bargaining functions, usually as rivals to the traditional unions.
To bargain with employers and to comply with the National Labor Relations Act prohibitions against management domination of unions, the state associations established separate divisions for their staff nurses, who were employees, and signed contracts with hospital employers. However, in practice the actual degree of insulation from management control varies from state to state because the collective bargaining division can remain dependent upon the parent association for budget, staff hiring, and other forms of administrative control. In New York, for example, the nurse unionists are subject to the disciplinary trial procedures of the association.
During the 1990s, many unionists became discontented when they felt that the ANA was neglecting union issues. The California Nurses Association, with 25,000 members, disaffiliated from the ANA, turned itself into a real union, now claiming 75,000 members, and later affiliated to the AFL-CIO. In other states, however, staff nurses wanted the benefits of unionism but still remain in the ANA. By 1999, the unionists had succeeded in pressuring the American Nurses Association to establish the United American Nurses with its own executive council and a representative National Labor Assembly of delegates from the state collective bargaining entities. In 2001, even though the UAN was still a subdivision of the ANA, it affiliated directly to the AFL-CIO. Some state nurses associations joined AFL-CIO state and local councils.
But the union-oriented nurses remained dissatisfied. They felt that their UAN was too dependent on the American Nurses Association for staff, money, and ability to act. They wanted real autonomy. In 2003, the UAN negotiated a new agreement with the ANA which established the UAN as a completely independent organization, self-governing, with its own dues, its own finances and, in 2004, with its own constitution. At this point, the UAN remains affiliated to the ANA. But it is no more subordinate to the ANA than it is to the AFL-CIO with which it is also affiliated.
Before the four split away, the UAN reported an affiliated membership of 120,000 working staff nurses, which made it the nation's largest union of registered nurses. (But the four seceders have taken away almost half that membership.) The Service Employees International Union enrolls 85,000 registered nurses. However, UAN nurses are organized into their own self-governing unit, while the SEIU nurses are scattered into various locals, along with other healthcare workers. The UAN is affiliated to the AFL-CIO; the SEIU is the leading force in the rival Change to Win coalition, but an agreement between the two calls for no raiding, and possible cooperation in organizing, bargaining, and political action.
The UAN has never considered a merger with the SEIU, but there were discussions on the terms under which the SEIU's 85,000 nurses might join the UAN and be subject to its constitution. These discussions were terminated when the four disaffected state associations demanded "The cessation of all... discussions and agreements with the SEIU designed to ultimately merge, affiliate or otherwise bind the UAN and its states to the SEIU." In that respect, the four had already had their way when John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, assured the NYS Nurses Association that "the discussions about the proposed relationship have ceased and there are no plans to resume them." The UAN executive council voted accordingly. But in demanding a "fundamental change" the four went far beyond any concerns with the SEIU. They seem disturbed by the emerging independent role of the UAN as a strong union organization.
A prompt statement from the Unity Caucus expressed its opposition to disaffiliation:
Previous Article: Steel officers instigate reform revolt
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